Whisky and Edinburgh are intertwined like a Celtic knot, with the amber liquid a bloodline for this small city born on the curve of a dead volcano. It’s not just scotch, of course; gin, ales and other potables are so prevalent it would be myopic to limit Edinburgh’s appeal strictly to the brown stuff. But they are spirit and provenance—Edinburgh defines the creation of blended scotches and growth of single malts in a way matched only perhaps by Guadalajara and its tequila.
At its core, Edinburgh is a university town, and hence much of the city’s drinking is defined by student life. The distinguished University of Edinburgh is located in Old Town, so that half of the city tends to revolve around value and quantity. The cavernous Seven Sisters, for instance, with its sprawling terrace and Airstream-sized outdoor TV, may make for a great sports bar, but not so much for selecting a rare dram.
It is therefore across the verdant lawns of the Princes Street Gardens in New Town—which dates back merely to the mid-1700s—where more of the city’s experimental drinking labs have popped up. In the last decade or so a fertile testing ground for ambitious Scottish entrepreneurs, eager mixologists, and whisky fans have congregated. Here are some of our favorites on both sides of the Edinburgh Castle.
Panda & Sons
If whisky is the blood of Edinburgh then Queen Street is the aorta—and it’s where you’ll find many of the city’s best upper-tier drinking establishments. Starting on the west end, stroll east and you’ll pass by the red façade of an old-timey barbershop called Panda & Sons. (You’ll probably stare at the gold signage, mythically named after the now-retired Grandpa Walt and his panda progeny.) Walk downstairs to find a dead-end lined with bookshelves; swing one shelf open to expose a bustling cocktail emporium within.
Saddle up to the long bar and pull out the menu—literally a novella of bitters, a tale of amargo valleys and sweet sugar highs. Between lists of cocktails like The Red Panda (an umami-loaded Tanqueray concoction with tomato juice, kaffir lime leaves and sriracha, crowned in Guinness foam) and Amor Joven (mezcal and blanco tequila swirled with apricot agave, smoked paprika and lime) you’ll find the genesis story of Grandpa Walt and his bar. In mood, décor, ethos and exquisite cocktail execution, Panda & Sons is to Edinburgh what Little Red Door is to Paris.
Further down Queen Street you may find Bramble Bar & Lounge. With zero signage outside, it’s not the easiest to locate, but is worth seeking out. Bramble brandishes a living room-like appeal, tucked down below the street and calling to mind a friend’s basement. The music—a steady boom-bap of east versus west coast hip-hop—only adds to the allure.. The small bar is credited with helping launch Edinburgh’s cocktail movement, and in its dozen years has graduated a bullpen of world-renowned bartenders and global brand ambassadors (if you’re lucky you just might stumble across Bramble co-founder and Ardbeg ambassador Jason Scott behind the bar).
If you’re in a rush, choose the Affinity—a pre-bottled blend of Glenmorangie, vermouth, cocktail bitters and wine-based aperitif called Byrrh blended and aged in an Oloroso cask.you can even stash a couple bottles in your pocket to go. Several small rooms off the main bar are ideal on weekends, as Bramble can grow a little too congested for easy drinking. But on weeknights it’s cocktail bliss.
One of the more understated whisky bars in New Town, Lucky Liquor excels in crafting some true delicacies. As the sister bar to Bramble (and only a short stumble down Queen Street), Lucky makes a solid alternative to the former’s superstar popularity. We commandeered the downstairs poolroom and, over some heated games of Cut Throat, imbibed precisely prepared cocktails like the Duck Hunt (cognac splashed with anisette and bitters, pierced with a rolled slice of prosciutto-like duck meat) and Talk Derby to Me (bourbon, peach, manzanilla sherry and cream soda). Altogether, it’s all good tunes, friendly staff, and utterly unpretentious.
Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Sandwiched between Bramble and Lucky Liquor on Queen Street, you’ll find a Georgian manse with a bronze plaque reading Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS). The three upstairs floors of this prosaically named private club are closed to the public, although commoners can enter the lobby restaurant/lounge to purchase some of the Society’s very rare single malt offerings.
The real magic, however, is on the third floor, where you’ll find a true Temple of the Single Malt. The Kaleidoscope Bar houses hundreds of bottles from SMWS’s vault of branded expressions—a treasure trove of single casks they source from over a hundred distilleries—all for you to sample and purchase. There’s also a restaurant with cozy leather booths where, if you’re a member, you can set up shop and work for a couple hours while sampling drams. The best ways to enter is with a friend who’s a member, or join yourself. At a cost of about $100 (£89) annually, not only does membership grant you access to the Queen Street clubhouse, Kaleidoscope Bar and London outpost, but it also allows you to purchase the one-off bottles they release every month.
Hoot the Redeemer
The vibe of Hoot is evident as soon as you’re confronted with its speakeasy portal: a Zoltar-style machine. Walk through to find an amusement park of alcohol within—complete with a claw crane game way in the back. For one pound, players target and grab ingredients, selecting preferred options to hand to the bartender to concoct a mystery cocktail. We grabbed pineapple and mint and asked for a tequila and mezcal cocktail that wasn’t too sweet and received a delicious piña colada-like concoction. There’s also a booze-laced ice cream vending machine, dice games on the menu and bathrooms wallpapered in erotic R Crumb cartoons.
One of the few elevated whisky destinations in Old Town, we’ve repeatedly sung the praises of Devil’s Advocate. Tucked away down a narrow alley (or “close” as they’re called in Scotland), behind its huge swinging black steel doors you’ll find a modernized middle age-style mead pub. Think rough-hewn rock walls, flagstone floors, and wood-railed loft, all candlelit using whisky bottles dripping in wax. The erstwhile 18th century pumphouse is now home to one of the best whisky collections in Edinburgh. A huge hand-typed menu, separated by regions, lists 400+ rare distilleries and single casks, loaded with offerings from smaller houses like Bunnahabhain, Port Askaig and Edradour. Devil’s Advocate also offers a robust section of Kentucky bourbons, Japanese whisky and Irish whiskey (e.g. their special was a cask of “unspoken” 25-year Irish).
Additionally, the bar boasts one of the better kitchens in Edinburgh, with its old-school charm reflected in the fare: hearty soups (cauliflower and green curry on our day) and thick slabs of locally made wholegrain bread, crispy black haggis with roasted pepper and tomato jam, a charcuterie board overflowing with smoked salmon, pickles and mussels. Their Tempest Helles-battered fish and chips—featuring a scoop of mind-altering homemade tartar sauce—was one of the best we had in all of Scotland. Grab lunch, and while away the rainy afternoon outside with hips attached to the bar.
Eschewing the playfulness of bars like Hoot the Redeemer and Panda & Sons is the aptly named Scotch at the Balmoral. Built from the bones of a late 19th century train station, The Balmoral is as grand a hotel as one can find in Edinburgh: a tower clock-crowned Victorian castle replete with the Michelin-starred Number One restaurant, and whisky bar as serious as they come. Senior Whisky Ambassador Cameron will offer a dish of smoked almonds and dark chocolate to get the mouth watering before diagnosing your perfect single malt like a Jungian psychoanalyst. With over 500 bottles of single malts at their disposal—many ultra-rare or specifically bottled for the bar itself—you’ll be happy Cameron is around to guide your journey.
While most of the fancier lounges close at 1AM, Nightcap’s 3AM closing bell makes it the spot most locals—and seemingly the entire service industry—end up at for last call. On weekends this two-story bar gets packed, so try to sneak in around midnight and lock down a table in the back room before things get wild. Even with a table, expect a lot of shifting and bumping for moving beer traffic; outside, the stairs become a bleacher of hand-rolled smokes and Scottish chatter. With a steady diet of golden era hip-hop playing over the speakers, Nightcap grows more festive than other drinking lounges, so only attempt if a bit of rowdiness doesn’t scare you.